John Joe McGinley
IRISH American Congressman John Morrissey, once told the US House of Representatives during a heated debate: “I have been a wharf rat, chicken thief, prize fighter, gambler and member of Congress, and if any gentleman on the other side wants his constitution amended, just let him step into the Rotunda with me.”
This was no idle threat, because as we shall see, John Morrissey was a man who rose from humble beginnings to the top of New York society and American politics using his fists and intellect in equal measure.
Born in Templemore County Tipperary, on February 12, 1831, John Morrissey would soon leave his native Ireland with his parents bound for the United States. In early 1831, his family settled in the town of Troy in New York State.
The young Morrissey didn’t spend much time in any formal schooling. In his early teens, due to his massive physique—which made him look much older than he was—he found himself working as a bouncer in a Troy brothel. It was here—in between sorting out wayward clients—that Morrissey taught himself how to read and write.
Realising his future was limited in Troy, it was not long before a young John Morrissey was drawn to the Irish American enclaves of New York City itself.
Not much is known of Morrissey’s early life, but he later recounted that he spent his teens learning to fight in bar rooms and on the gambling riverboats, that frequented the New York wharfs.
Later in life, his political enemies would claim that, as a youth, he had been indicted twice for burglary, once for assault and battery, and once for assault with intent to kill.
Factions, fighting, fame and fortune
Along with many other young men of Irish descent, Morrissey joined the Dead Rabbits gang, their emblem, a rabbit impaled upon a staff, was carried into their wild street fights, hoisted proudly as a flag of war. Morrissey’s physique and prowess in brutal street fights as part of the Dead Rabbits, convinced him to pursue a career as a professional prize-fighter as well as a criminal enforcer.
Friends would later recount that he had his first fight in Captain Isaiah Rynders saloon at 28 Park Row. Captain Rynder worked for the Tammany Hall Democratic party faction. His job was to arrange general mayhem and ballot-box stuffing to ensure victory for the right candidate. He was always on the lookout for young men with fighting skills and he found one in John Morrissey.
Tammany Hall, or simply Tammany, was the name given to a powerful political machine that essentially ran New York City throughout much of the 19th century. The organisation reached a peak of notoriety in the decade following the Civil War, when it harboured ‘The Ring,’ the corrupted political organisation of William Magear Tweed, known as ‘Boss Tweed.’ Tammany Hall was the archetype of the political machines that flourished in many American cities in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The influence of Tammany did not wane until the 1930s and the organization itself did not cease to exist until the 1960s.
When organising an illegal bare knuckle fight Captain Rynder asked if any prize fighters were present in his bar. A young John Morrissey took off his cap, and said: “I can lick any man in the place.” This was soon put to the test, as eight men turned from the bar, grabbed chairs, bottles and other handy make shift weapons, and came at Morrissey determined to test his boast. Nonetheless, Morrissey held his own, until Rynder hit him under the ear with a spittoon he found close by to rescue him from the ensuing mayhem.
The Captain paid Morrissey’s medical bills and then employed him in his political operation as a ‘shoulder-hitter’—a fighter who enforced the will of a political boss by intimidation or violence. Morrissey met Irish immigrants at the dock, found them work and shelter, and after obtaining their pledges to vote for the Democratic Tammany ticket, helped them get American citizenship. He did this by arranging their appearances before sympathetic and well bribed judges.
John continued his bare knuckle fighting and it was at one such bout that he would earn his lifelong nickname of ‘Old Smoke.’ During the fight in the basement of a New York hotel, a stove was overturned spilling hot coals over the floor. The fight continued until Morrissey’s opponent, Tom McCann, a violent street fighter knocked John to the floor and held him down with his back upon the burning coals. In agony John’s flesh began to simmer and smoke. His friends came to his assistance, pouring cold water on the embers. Enduring the pain, John got back up to his feet and in a blind rage with his back still smoking he battered McCann senseless. The watching enthralled bystanders gave him the nickname ‘Old Smoke’ a name he was to be known by for the rest of his life.
Not yet 20, John Morrissey now known as ‘Old Smoke’ decided to leave New York and seek his fortune in the Californian gold rush. Despite finding no luck as a gold prospector, he turned his hand to gambling and was a great success making a fortune winning gold from newly rich and usually drunk prospectors.
However, Morrissey could not escape the lure of the ring and he had his first professional fight, knocking out a well-known pugilist George Thompson in the 11th round and winning the then princely sum of $5000. His pockets now full, Morrissey decided he would return to New York and challenge the current American boxing champion ‘Yankee Sullivan’—a native of Bandon, County Cork whose real name was James Ambrose. While waiting for Sullivan to agree to fight him, Morrissey continued his involvement in New York politics as an enforcer using his associates in the Dead Rabbits gang as additional muscle.
The fight with ‘Yankee Sullivan’ was finally arranged for October 12, 1853. 3000 people gathered in a field in Boston Corner to witness a gruelling, but engrossing and illegal bare knuckle boxing match, with both men fighting for the right to call themselves the undisputed champion of America. Sullivan was the more technically gifted boxer and for 37 rounds he pummelled and battered Morrissey, he landed so many punches to his face that Old Smoke’s nose would never regain its original shape.
The bout soon began to take its toll and Morrissey was out on his feet and heading for defeat but as had happened so many times in his short life fate would turn in his favour. As with many bare knuckle bouts the fighting was not just contained to the ring, a brawl broke out between the rival supporters and began to spill into the ring. In the confusion Sullivan didn’t hear the bell for the start of round 38 and he failed to leave his corner by the required time. The referee intervened, stopped the fight and awarded the bout to Morrissey. Battered, bruised and almost unconscious, the confused Old Smoke was now the bare knuckle champion of America. Morrissey now used his new found fame and wealth to open a bar and gambling den which would become famous for cock fights.
Battling the Butcher
He also gained control of the Dead Rabbits and it was now that his infamous rivalry intensified with William Poole, who had the well-earned nickname ‘Bill the Butcher,’ famously portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in the film Gangs of New York. Working again for Tammany Hall, Morrissey organised the Dead Rabbits to battle Bill the Butcher’s American Party ‘Know-Nothing’ gang.
The two groups became enforcers for battling political parties. The Know Nothing anti-immigration party employed William Poole and the Bowery Boys to ensure the ballot boxes gave the right results. Old Smoke and the Dead Rabbits were hired by the pro-Irish group, Democratic Tammany Hall faction, to ensure Poole and his thugs would not be successful and that Irish immigrants knew which party was looking after their interests.
However, politics alone did not explain the intense rivalry between Morrissey and Bill the Butcher. There was an intense hatred between the men, while Poole would go on to defeat Morrissey in the ring, he would lose a fight to a bullet several months later.
The violence between the rival gangs intensified and both leaders chose to stage a boxing match. In July 1854, Bill the Butcher defeated Morrissey in the ring. Street fights between the two gangs continued, resulting in the deaths of several members—including the Butcher in March 1855—when two of Morrissey’s friends, Lew Baker and Jim Turner, shot and fatally wounded Bill the Butcher at a saloon on Broadway.
Morrissey and Baker were charged with his murder, but they were released as the jury could not reach a verdict. This was hardly surprising as a sizeable proportion of them had been bribed not to!
There is no doubt Morrissey masterminded the death of Bill the Butcher and for his part in facing down Poole’s anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant party, the Know-Nothings, he achieved an almost mythical hero status within the Irish community. As a reward, the Democratic Tammany Hall faction gave Morrissey the go-ahead to open a gambling house, and also promised that there would be no police interference in the running operations.
With this blank cheque, Old Smoke retired from boxing to concentrate on his growing gambling and Brothel empire.
Retirement from the ring and reinvention
Five years after his ‘defeat’ of Sullivan, Morrissey emerged from self-imposed retirement to fight John C Heenan, the son of another Irish family in Troy. Again, Morrissey’s ability to absorb punches allowed him to stay in the ring with a more skilled opponent and when Heenan lost the use of his right hand after hitting it off a corner stake, his endurance paid off and ‘Old Smoke’ emerged victorious once more.
Morrissey knew that despite his courage he had been lucky in the ring and decided to retire and concentrate on his other skills that of organised crime and gambling. He eventually owned 16 gambling dens and numerous brothels. Heenan claimed the title on Morrissey’s retirement from boxing in 1859.
In 1861, he decided to reinvent himself once again and left New York behind to move to the then small but growing town of Saratoga. With $700,000 in cash, he underwent an image makeover, changing his ways to suit his new improved status and in the process, becoming a serious political force. He built a new state of the art and plush casino called the Club House, which counted Civil War generals like Sherman and Grant among its regular clients. He invested his money wisely and profitably in real estate and in 1863 opened the Saratoga Springs racing track, which is still in use to this day.
Always conscious of his past though, Morrissey kept his own name off all official documents when opening Saratoga Racecourse in 1864. He knew that his past would come back to haunt him and impact on the success of his new venture. He wisely appointed William Travers, a respected figure in the horse-breeding world, as the venue’s first president. Saratoga race course is still thriving to this day and it is Travers, not Morrissey, who is commemorated in its flagship race every August.
Now a wealthy man and reinventing his life story, airbrushing his Dead Rabbit and brothel owning past, Morrissey turned his eye towards politics once again—however this time he would not be an enforcer but a candidate. His wealth and party machine would ensure he would be elected twice to the US Congress as a Democratic member.
His transformation became so complete that the writer Elliot J Gorn in his book, The Manly Art; Bare-knuckle prize fighting in America, said of him: “As a politician, Morrissey maintained arms-length contact with the gangs, brothels, and saloons of his youth, and his rough personal manner had become quiet, even genteel.”
In early 1870—before revelations of Tammany Hall corruption became public—Morrissey joined a faction called the Young Democracy that revolted against Tammany Hall’s leader Boss Tweed’s authoritarian rule. Tweed, however, learned of their plot to unseat him as head of Tammany Hall and used policemen to prevent Young Democracy members from entering the building on the night of their planned coup.
The rebel organisation quickly folded and Morrissey grew tired of the rampant corruption in Tammany Hall and left Congress after his second term. He eventually testified against Boss Tweed and helped put him in prison. In 1875, now reinvigorated politically, Morrissey stood for a seat in the New York State legislature, beating his Tammany Hall opponent to win the right to represent Boss Tweed’s old district. Old Smoke had taken his revenge. His critics taunted him that he could only have been elected in such a safe precinct. A proud man, he then ran in 1877 and won in a new district, defeating another Tammany politician, August Schell.
In May 1878—only a few months into his second legislative term—Morrissey contracted pneumonia and died on May 1, 1878 at the age of 47. Old Smoke was held in such high esteem that on the day of his funeral the New York State closed all its public offices and the flags were flown at half-mast. 20,000 mourners lined the streets to pay their last respects and the entire New York State Senate attended his funeral, and he was buried in St Peter’s Cemetery, just outside Troy. Not bad for a boy from Templemore who used his wits and fists to rise from poverty to become a US Congressman.
Most newspapers praised the former pugilist, gambler, gang leader, brothel owner and politician on his death, observing: “That he had transcended his rowdy youth to become a useful citizen, a man of shrewdness, rectitude, and generosity.”
In 1996 he was elected in to the International Boxing Hall of Fame, so the legend of ‘Old Smoke’ Boxer, gang boss and US Congressman lives on to this day.
John Joe McGinley is the author of The Irish Wise Guys, a no-holds-barred book focusing on the most notorious Irish American Gangsters, crime bosses for whom death and destruction was a daily currency in their lives. To order a copy—priced at €20 (inclusive of postage and packaging)—visit: http://www.irishwiseguys.ie